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World Cup fever swells at base of French Alps

Grenoble is one of nine sites hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France

The crowd settles into the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble prior to kick-off of New Zealand-Canada at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup.
The crowd settles into the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble prior to kick-off of New Zealand-Canada at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup. (Photo credit: Julian Cardillo)

GRENOBLE, France – It’s a city that sits thousands of feet below snowy peaks, calls itself “The Capital of the Alps” and once hosted the Winter Olympics, but for the next few weeks, it is embracing a new identity: venue for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

OK, maybe embracing is an understatement.

The tournament is a topic of conversation among visitors and locals as they sit at cafes, board elevators and walk the streets that are named after French luminaries. Posters and decals bearing the Women’s World Cup’s blue insignia are plastered on doors and windows of restaurants, bars, banks and businesses throughout the city center, and an abundance of street signs direct motorists toward the Stade des Alpes, which is hosting four group games and a round of 16 match.

Before kickoff of Saturday night’s Canada-New Zealand game, the public transit tram alternated stop announcements with the message “Welcome Canada and New Zealand teams … May the best win” on its information screens.

Even the bike taxis are decorated in tournament colors.

“You know, it’s a small city and I think that makes for a very intimate environment for the games and the competition in general,” said Alexis Bongard, one of the taxi cyclists. “But above all, I think there’s a big sense of pride here in Grenoble that we get to help hold this event.”

As of 2016, the city, whose origins date back to 43 BC, has a population of roughly 161,000.

Grenoble started as a Gallic tribe and was annexed by the ancient Romans, then gained notoriety and prestige during the Renaissance and French Revolution because of its nobility. Bastilles constructed atop the nearby mountains during the Middle Ages are also an enduring symbol among locals and are accessible by cable cars known as “Les Bulles.”

The elevation here also maxes out at 1,640 feet, though the city is at the base of the Alps and less than three hours driving from Mont Blanc, the iconic mountain that straddles the France-Italy boarder. As such, Grenoble is now a destination for hikers and a gateway to ski resorts further up the mountains.

Mainstream sports like soccer haven’t put the city on the map in a while – not since it held the 1968 Winter Olympics, at least. Grenoble’s men’s and women’s soccer teams currently play in Ligue 2, the second tier French league, though the men’s side has been a stop for a few of the France national team’s stars, like FIFA World Cup winners Youri Djorkaeff (1998) and Olivier Giroud (2018).

Also, former Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Laurent Courtois played here from 2008-11.

“This is a big event for Grenoble, this doesn’t happen every year,” Pauline Bonnet, an adviser for the Office de Tourisme Grenoble-Alpes Metropole told Pro Soccer USA.

“We need to speak about it a lot, so we can share with people – even the inhabitants living here – that they can live something different. Usually people here want the mountains and they’re not used to football.”

Bonnet is part of a 10-person team at the tourism office, located on Rue de la Republique, helping direct people toward the Stade des Alpes for the next few weeks.

The tourism office building’s main floor is in full 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup mode.

It has an interactive tournament calendar, a mini soccer field for children to play on, and its walls and stairwells are strung with the flags of the tournament’s competitors.

There’s also an exhibit dedicated to the history of women’s soccer that contains 25 photo panels depicting major moments – from the establishment of France’s first female team to the U.S.’ tournament win four years ago – all on loan from Nice’s Musee National du Sport.

“We wanted to share the sport with everybody, so we have lots of decorations, even our exhibition on the history of women’s’ football,” said Bonnet, who has also worked with the tourism offices in cities around Grenoble to alert local businesses about the World Cup. “Lots of institutions and businesses across Grenoble-Alpes Metropole are involved.”

In truth, World Cup fever is hard to miss here, where the sunlight blasts through fast-moving, thick clouds and the mountaintops frame the skyline. Grenoble might only get five of the tournament’s 52 matches, but you can bet this city will make its time in the spotlight count.

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